Can anthropology overcome its imperial past?

Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East by Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, Stanford University Press (2015)

In 1989, the queer theory professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a founder of the field, presented a paper, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” at the annual gathering of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

Although few read or heard the paper – the conference is only open to members – media outlets pounced on the title to make it seem like English professors only talked about sex.

For years afterwards, The New York Times would dispatch reporters to the MLA in the hopes of finding yet another such salacious gem on which to “report.”

In more recent years, universities have been beset by political controversies so widespread and defunding so severe that those who lived through the 1990s may well feel nostalgic for a gentler time when simply mentioning masturbation alongside a revered author’s name occupied the public’s attention.

One lightning rod on many campuses is the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, launched by Palestinians a decade ago to pressure Israel to end its violations of their rights.

The larger context is the growing public interest in the politics of Israel and Palestine. The case of Steven Salaita – fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – is only one example of the minefield that must continually be navigated on campuses across the United States whenever the question of Palestine is raised.

Of course this is not a new phenomenon. At Columbia University, the late Edward Said, a revered academic whose work Orientalism is a seminal text for several fields, was constantly under attack. Professor Joseph Massad has faced persistent and unsuccessful attempts at unseating him or denying him tenure at the university over the years.

Battle moves up

Groups like Campus Watch, The David Project and Canary Mission have proliferated on campuses. They serve as watchdogs to monitor and control conversations and harass teachers and students, going so far as to enlist students to monitor and report on their professors.

Other initiatives by pro-Israel groups have attempted to use federal civil rights law to force university administrations to crack down on speech and activism related to Palestine under the pretext, ultimately rejected by the government, that such activities create a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students.

In this climate, it is not surprising that BDS has become a deeply contentious issue on campuses. As a result of advocacy by student movements, including Students for Justice in Palestine, student bodies across the country have passed referendums and resolutions urging their universities to divest from companies or end affiliations with institutions that support or profit from Israeli occupation and human rights violations.

The fight has now moved upwards into the main organizations of various fields. In 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association became the first US academic organizations to endorse BDS.

Others followed suit and the latest is the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which is in the process of holding a referendum on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

That this should be so is not surprising. There are few fields like anthropology where the matter of Israel and Palestine is quite so poignant and has such deep roots.

Anthropology as a discipline has always been rooted in imperialism. In the popular perception, anthropologists may seem a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, exuding sexual allure as they tramp around the world “discovering” cultures (read: stealing artifacts).

But anthropology has been about studying the Other for scientific reasons and contributes to an understanding of social, cultural and political factors in the makeup of humanity. It has also, from its start, been implicated in projects of imperialism, beginning with the construction of the Other as, inevitably, non-white.

We have learned a tremendous amount about the world due to anthropology’s concerns with studying people and objects in their habitats. But the field’s biggest problem has been its historic inability to distinguish between people and objects, often treating the former like the latter and assuming a right to ownership over them.

Complicated relationship

A new book, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East, co-authored by Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, sheds light on the field’s convoluted and complicated relationship with the areas commonly referred to as the Middle East and North Africa.

It begins with a startling but sobering statement: “We never could have written this book before tenure.” Deeb and Winegar go on to explain that they had been warned, in often solicitous ways, that touching such an explosive subject could jeopardize their careers.

Of course, the examples of Salaita and others do little to allay their fears.

Despite the warnings, Deeb and Winegar have produced a text that provides glimpses into anthropology’s dark history and its current functioning as a discipline that, to some credit, struggles with its past. In the process, we learn of the murkier entanglements of anthropology with the state apparatus.

As a discipline, anthropology, through the American Anthropological Association, has actively worked to enable state surveillance. As the authors write, “in the 1950s, the AAA executive board secretly worked with the CIA to create a database of scholars’ names, areas of expertise and research interests – providing this information to the CIA without AAA members’ knowledge.”

In 1919, the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas wrote a letter to The Nation, criticizing the “wartime activities” of four anthropologists in Central America. Boas’ criticism was strongly worded: he described them as having “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”

Instead of praising him, the AAA reprimanded Boas and expelled him from the voting membership of the organization. Boas died in 1942. The AAA only voted in 2005 to rescind and repudiate its censure of him almost a century earlier.

This is not a layman’s book. It often features detailed explanations of votes on resolutions and the backdoor negotiations that went along with them. In that respect, those parts will be of most interest to anthropologists themselves. But as the authors make clear, anthropology’s links to the state system are still persistent, and for that reason it is incumbent upon the general public to understand how and why these survive.

Chilling effect

Anthropology’s Politics will be of interest to those keen to understand the intellectual roots of the discipline. It explains how the field is embedded in geopolitics. For those used to thinking of academic work as the life of the mind, untouched by the murkiness of real life, the book is revelatory.

As the authors write: “the pursuit of ideas – that hallmark of scholarly practice – is never pure; it is infused with tensions large and small … knowledge and power are co-constituted.”

Today, the field of anthropology still exhibits vestiges of its haunting, imperial past, but it is also and increasingly one of the more self-reflexive disciplines in academia.

Deeb and Winegar are not sunnily optimistic, having been scarred by their own experiences. The fact that nearly all of their interviewees chose to remain anonymous is an indication of how vicious and far-reaching the effect of Zionist activists and politicians can be.

Censure and censorship also have a wide reach: the authors report that the National Science Foundation withdrew funding for a project involving Palestine in the 1990s.

As Deeb and Winegar point out, younger faculty in particular have a lot more to be concerned about in terms of job stability. The fear of retaliation of the sort visited upon Salaita – already a respected and tenured professor when the University of Illinois axed him over tweets criticizing Israel – will have a chilling effect on the kinds of intellectual work they produce, as they likely seek to do “safe” and less threatening kinds of research.

The authors are uncertain about the future of anthropology vis-a-vis Palestine and Israel given the many different pressures being brought to bear upon its practitioners. In addition, the field already suffers from various forms of sexism – women are often treated as secretarial appendages, rather than scholars in their own right – and racism, as many white scholars still insist that they are more unbiased than scholars from the regions they study.

And as far as the vote on BDS is concerned? It remains to be seen if the AAA will demonstrate any courage to finally begin to withdraw from its position of always wanting to discipline the Middle East.

Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic and activist in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST. Her work has appeared in publications including Vox, In These Times, The Daily Dot and Maximum Rock’n’Roll. She is currently working on a book titled Strange Love: Neoliberalism, Affect and the Invention of Social Justice. Nair’s writings can be found at